explainer

The US is being slammed for locking asylum-seeking children in cages. Sound familiar?

Over the last couple of weeks, the eyes of the world have been fixed on the US/Mexico border. A place where thousands of children are currently being held in detention facilities, forcibly separated from their mothers and fathers whom they followed into Texas.

These children, many of whom have fled violence in Central America, are the product of the US’s new “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border crossings.

Introduced by the Trump administration in April, the new rules mandate the detention of any adult that hasn’t used a designated point of entry to the US to seek asylum. While these men and women await prosecution, any minors accompanying them at the time are taken away and placed in government-run facilities until the matter is resolved.

The Washington Examiner reports that at least 250 children are being taken in each day, and by the end of August the administration could be holding as many as 30,000 kids.

Images – even audio – of these children crammed into wire cages have ricocheted around the world, prompting damning accusations of “cruel”, “immoral” treatment and even human rights violations.

Sound familiar, Australia?

Children in detention on Nauru. (Photo: Refugee Action Collective Victoria)

Australia's own 'forgotten children'.

There are currently 209 children being held in immigration detention, including 22 on off-shore detention in Nauru and 180 in community detention.

But at its peak, in July 2013, that figure stood at 1,992.

The plight of these children and their relatives has attracted condemnation from multiple sources over the years:

In October 2016, Amnesty International condemned the Federal Government over the "intolerable cruelty and the destruction of the physical and mental integrity of hundreds of children, men and women" held in indefinite off-shore detention on Nauru;

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In March, 2015, a UN special rapporteur determined Australia "has violated the right of the asylum seekers, including children, to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment";

In 2014, a national inquiry by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that the mandatory and prolonged immigration detention of children is in clear violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and causes them significant mental and physical illness and developmental delays.

Still, it seems Donald Trump was impressed.

The Turnbull/Trump phone call.

Seventeen months ago, on January 28, 2017, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made a phone call to the newly inaugurated President of the United States, Donald Trump. The topic: Australia's mandatory immigration detention policy.

In an effort to curb the people-smuggling trade, Turnbull explained, Australia will not accept asylum seekers by boat under any circumstances.

“Even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel Prize-winning genius, we will not let you in,” Mr Turnbull said, according to a transcript obtained by The Washington Post.

Mr Trump replied: “That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”

Five days later, Trump's fledgling administration tabled its own plan.

According to leaked notes from a closed-door Department of Homeland Security meeting from February 2, 2017, Asylum Division Chief John Lafferty discussed a number of policies to deter immigrants from claiming asylum. MSNBC reported that this included expanding the facilities for holding people in indefinite detention and... you guessed it, separating asylum-seeking parents from their children.

Lafferty reportedly said officers might have to "hold mothers longer" and "hold children" in Department of Health and Human Services and Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities.

Fourteen months on, here we are.

And despite condemnation from both sides of the aisle and even a veiled criticism by First Lady Melania Trump (who said she wants to see her, erm, country "govern with heart" on the issue), the administration is showing no signs of changing tack.

"Where is the outcry for the killings and crime being caused by gangs and thugs, including MS-13, coming into our country illegally?" Trump tweeted on Monday.

"If you don't have borders, you don't have a country."

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